Review of A Motherland’s Daughter, A Fatherland’s Son by Ellie Midwood

motherlandDescription: Poland, 1939. 

A country, torn by the occupation of two unlikely allies – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. 
On the border of this newly divided territory, a young Wehrmacht Unteroffizier, Werner and a Soviet Military Interpreter, Kira meet and fall in love against all odds. 
Both forced into the military against their will, they wish for one thing only – a peaceful life together. Everything is set for Kira to defect and marry Werner… 

But the German army invades the Soviet Union, and now the two lovers are forced to fight against each other on the opposite sides of the frontline; trying to keep their humanity as more and more atrocities are committed by both armies. They have to decide if their love is stronger than the devastation surrounding them or succumb to the hate as sworn enemies should.

Partially based on true events, this novel will take you on the unforgettable journey through war-torn countries, where hope can be lost in no-man’s-land, and one will have to go to great lengths not to lose sight of it.

I have had the pleasure of reading two of Ellie Midwood’s books previously and enjoyed them thoroughly, and A Motherland’s Daughter, A Fatherland’s Son is no different. Reading one of her books is a total-immersion experience into life during World War II. Midwood’s vast knowledge of that time period is remarkable and is a big part of what gives her stories depth: the intensity of the backdrop of a horrific war. She doesn’t skimp on the details of the brutality of war, either. What she writes is gut-wrenchingly real.

The second element that gives her stories amazing depth is her characters. She develops them to such a degree that I cannot help but laugh, cry, and scream with them. In this story, we follow the lives of lovers Kira and Werner, a Russian woman and a German man who fall in love in 1939 right before Germany declares war on Russia.

The story is told in an alternating point-of-view style, where one chapter is told from Kira’s point of view and the next chapter from Werner’s. From this first-person perspective, I get into the head of the characters even more. They start out as idealistic young people, who believe in love and that they have their whole lives ahead of them to do what they wish. They will marry and be happy. The war devastates their lives, throwing them into the pile with millions of others whose lives are also being ruined by the horror of war.

Can they still come out of all this after the war is through as the same people? After seeing and performing awful deeds? After experiencing some of the worst moments of humanity and their own lives? Lovers whose countries dictate they are enemies?

Kira is enlisted as a sniper in the Red Army. Werner serves as a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. The story follows the events of the war through its end in 1945 on the eastern front. It’s easy to look back at history and want to blame the Germans, to mark them at the bad guys, but when you realize that many of these soldiers were just young man, pretty much boys, it breaks my heart. So much loss of life for both sides, which is clearly shown in this story. So much senseless death. It’s no wonder both Kira and Werner question if they are who they were when they met, if love and hope still hold any meaning in a world shattered by such darkness.

The stakes are high, ridiculously, impossibly high. I kept turning the pages because I needed to believe that the inherent goodness in people, especially Kira and Werner, would win, that victory of the Allies during the war is one thing, but getting down to the level of person-to-person, victory of the heart matters, too. Love wins, right?

I happily give this book five stars!

Favorite quotes:

“You’re somebody’s son too. Under those uniforms, you’re all the same.” That simple Russian peasant knows more about life than the most enlightened of our philosophers…

A truly strange phenomenon war is, which always starts due to a lack of understanding. Yet, once former enemies find each other in such close proximity and strike a conversation for the first time, when the first bread is broken to feed yesterday’s foe, all animosity suddenly loses its power over the men who used to tear into each other’s throats, and humanity renews its hope in itself once again.

Purchase a copy of this book on Amazon.

Review of The Beat on Ruby’s Street by Jenna Zark

rubySynopsis: The last thing eleven-year-old Ruby Tabeata expected to happen on her way to a Jack Kerouac reading was to be hauled to the police station.

It’s 1958 and Ruby is the opposite of a 1950s stereotype: fierce, funny and strong willed, she is only just starting to chart her course in a family of Beat Generation artists in Greenwich Village. Ruby dreams of meeting famous poets while becoming one herself; instead, she’s accused of trying to steal fruit from a local vendor and is forced to live in a children’s home.

As Ruby struggles to return to family and friends, she learns her only choice is to follow her heart.

Join Ruby’s journey as she finds unexpected friendships, the courage to rebel against unjust authority and the healing power of art in this inspiring middle-grade novel by Jenna Zark.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Beat on Ruby’s Street is a novel intended for middle-grade students, as the protagonist is an 11-year-old girl named Ruby, and the story is told from first-person point-of-view. Ruby’s voice is realistic for a girl her age, and I think this book reads appropriately for kids around the same age.

The details of New York in the late 1950s and the Beat Generation of the time are also fleshed out well in the backdrop. There’s a certain freedom to being a kid 60 years ago that I feel no longer applies nowadays. A girl like Ruby can wander the streets with her friends for hours at a time and be safe. I am reminded of stories my mom told me about how far she’d ride her bike or how she’d ride on public transportation when she was about Ruby’s age and be gone all day, yet her parents didn’t have to worry.

Ruby is also an aspiring poet. She wants badly to meet famous poets like Jack Kerouac and is on her way to one of his readings when…

The freedom Ruby experiences is threatened when she is accused of stealing fruit, however. A social worker steps in and begins to question Ruby’s home life. The reader discovers that Ruby’s parents aren’t married. Their apartment isn’t kept up. Her dad, Gary Daddy-o, is a musician who is on the road for weeks at a times. Her mom, Nell-Mom, is an artist is is oblivious to the comings and goings of Ruby and her brother, Ray. Ruby and some of her friends attend “school” at a store called Blue Sky, where they learn some stuff from the owners, Sky and Blu, but they aren’t being properly educated.

Everything Ruby thought was true and normal about her life is suddenly threatened. She spends some time in a children’s home. Her childhood innocence is ripped away from her. To see the shortcomings of adults through a child’s eyes is a unique perspective. I remember when I was a kid thinking my parents knew everything and that I would understand everything about life once I was grown up. To have that worldview shattered, to realize your parents are far from perfect and that your home isn’t the nice place you thought is scary and also realistic, a part of growing up.

This is a quick read. Being much older than the intended audience, I found the novel had its charms and was good for middle-grade readers, and yes, it reminded me of what it was like for me when I was 11 or 12, but I didn’t get much else out of this novel. It’s a good story, but not great. It doesn’t necessarily stand out from much else I’ve read, but it was enjoyable enough.

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Review of The Other Half of Me by Jennifer Sivec

theotherhalfSummary: Maggie and Sam’s love was forever, until it wasn’t.

Is it ever too late to go back home?

Maggie Whitaker had always dreamed about the same boy even though she’d never met him.

A loner, with an overly critical mother and a head full of self-doubt, she has spent most of her life isolated. That is, until she meets Trip. He becomes her only friend until he cruelly betrays her, making her feel even more alone.

Sam has endured far more than anyone has ever realized. When he meets Maggie, he feels as though he knows her immediately. They fall for each other hard and fast and Maggie feels as though she’s been waiting for him her entire life.

Their life together is beautiful as they make plans for a future together, until Sam is in a horrible accident and suddenly everything changes.

When Maggie finds herself alone with no explanation, she does her best to move on with her life. She realizes that erasing Sam from her heart is close to impossible, until Dylan.

As she’s finally about to have her chance at love, the unexpected happens and Maggie must decide if love is ever just enough, or if she needs more to be complete.

Caution: This story contains themes of sexual assault, addiction, and mild sexual situations.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I am the first to admit that I am a sucker for a good romance and a big fan of damaged characters who are trying to rebuild their lives. Being an author myself, I write about these themes, so as I opened this book and knew that it was highly rated, I was looking forward to a great story.

What I came away with was a good story, not a great one. I didn’t feel the ground move beneath me the way I was expecting when going into this.

Maggie lacks self-confidence because of her critical mother. Her mother is passive-aggressive. I often wanted to smack her for the rude tone and underlying jabs in what she says to her own daughter, even if her words hold some good stuff. So when unpopular Maggie, at age 15, finally attracts the attention of a boy at school, she is completely taken in. Poor Maggie is ruined by Trip, a boy who wanted one thing and one thing only from her.

That type of encounter leaves a scar on a girl’s heart, making it hard to open up to another guy. I felt badly for her and wanted her to find real love.

A few years pass and she goes to college, where she meets Sam. Sam is a jock who doesn’t think he’s smart and asks her to tutor him. He is popular with the girls, so Maggie is cautious when she agrees to help him. Their relationship quickly grows deeper, and they express that they feel they have always known each other. Next thing you know, Sam and Maggie are engaged and a few more years have passed.

This is the point where I felt disappointed. I would have loved to have read more about their relationship over those years. As this is a novella and therefore not a long story, it would have benefited from being developed more and made into a novel. I just didn’t believe their feelings and claims of having always felt a connection. That was too cliche, cheapening the bond that could have been expanded through more storytelling. There was a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, making the pacing off during this part of the book.

Then Sam is in a terrible car accident and is laid up in bed, unconscious. Maggie is left wondering if he will ever wake up. This tragedy pulled at my heartstrings. Then Maggie goes through a dreamlike sequence of visiting different parts of Sam’s childhood and seeing how his father walked out on them when he was young and how is mother had drug problems. Sam never felt like he deserved Maggie.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but more years pass. Maggie loves again, but as before, the pacing was off. The author seems to rush to get to the part of the story she wants to tell the most and skips over years of Maggie’s life where she could have shown the reader how her heart healed (although not completely) and how she managed to fall in love again. I feel cheated by not being given these details.

However, the end does save a lot of my criticisms. There is some lovely dialogue between Maggie and Sam, some downright gut-wrenching, raw emotion. The story delivered in the end. This was a short, easy read, but I wanted more of a good thing. I wanted this love story to be something that tore my heart to pieces and then mended it back together again. What I got was some damage to my heart and an easy fix.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review of Second Week in November by Kathleen Joyce

secondweek

Summary: Tucked in a cozy corner of the Pacific Northwest, the charming town of Amelia Bay becomes the focus of the media who have descended on the community seeking a sensational tabloid story. A beautiful young waitress, from Harrigan’s Irish Pub, disappears. Did she simply walk away, was she kidnapped, or worse? Clare Harrigan’s brother, Finn, a successful movie producer, finds himself up to his neck in hot water. The new Chief of Police believes he has his man. Can Clare clear Finn? She and her friends have to solve another murder amid the hubbub of getting ready for Thanksgiving and her son’s wedding. Someone is determined to stop Clare from finding the truth.

Join the Harrigan Clan and their friends, as they serve up more delicious meals of comfort food served around cozy fireplaces, in the second book of the Amelia Bay Mystery series.

Note: I am part of a writers group that has read and critiqued this novel during its creation. I am also a good friend of the author and served as an editor for her. My opinion is honest and unbiased.

Kathleen Joyce is back with her engaging cozy mystery series involving Clare and her group of gals in lovely Amelia Bay. Just coming off the horrific events of the first novel, Clare is looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and her son’s wedding, but murder is happening again in this sweet fictional Pacific Northwest small town. When a young waitress named Bets who works at the local pub disappears and a mysterious group of people belonging to the cult Evening Star walk into the bar one evening inquiring after her whereabouts, things turn bad for Clare’s ladies’ man, Hollywood producer brother, Finn, who was dating Bets. Just as one murder seems bad enough, another woman’s body turns up…on Clare’s property. Clare and her friends are determined to clear Finn’s good name and get to the bottom of these murders, but someone has it out for Clare and her family. The stakes grow higher as the story progresses, and amidst delectable desserts, warm fires, glasses of wine, and tasty meals and the elaborately-brought-to-life background of Amelia Bay, you can’t help but be written right into the action yourself. Joyce tells a carefully crafted tale that delivers a satisfying ending.

Her writing style reads smoothly. Even lengthy descriptive passages that are part of the cozy-telling formula are well-rendered and don’t get in the way of the plot. The dialogue between various characters is engaging and often delightfully humorous, as sweet as the desserts in the book and just a little sassy. Such dialogue plays an integral part in bringing Clare and her friends to life.

You will want to be sure to read the author’s final and third book in the Amelia Bay series when it’s released later this year.

My review of the first book in this series is here.

5 out of 5 stars

Purchase Second Week in November (An Amelia Bay Mystery Book 2) on Amazon

 

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Review of Dante’s Garden: Mystery and Magic in Bomarzo by Teresa Culter-Broyles

dantesgardenSummary: Dante’s Garden is the story of what happens when Frank Farnese, a book collector from 2017, falls through Hell’s Mouth, a strange sculpture in Bomarzo, Italy.

In 1570, Lucrezia Romano and famed antiquarian Pyrrho Ligorio welcome him when he awakens in a garden, from what he thinks is a dream but isn’t. Together they must figure out how to put the world right again.

The Inquisition, an extraordinary visit to Venice, and the dreams of Duke Francesco Orsini entwine to pull them all deeper into adventure, danger, love, and the hardest decisions of their lives.

Dante’s Garden weaves fact and fiction, history and imagination, to tell the story of Frank and Lucrezia, and the connection that, finally, may not be strong enough to hold them safe as time splits apart.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

As a lover of Italy and history, I was looking forward to reading this book. The moment I began reading, the author’s imagination and intense knowledge of Italian culture and heritage mingled to form a beautiful tapestry of a tale.

In current-day, book collector Frank Farnese boards a plane in New York and travels to Italy to meet Pasquale and Sandra Ciacionne, who have a 16th century Aldine Press copy of Dante’s La Commedia. The book is old but defective, due to two upside-down pages at the back, a burn mark, and a note left in the front…a note that seems like it was written to Frank.

In 16th century Italy, a young and beautiful, well-read lady named Lucrezia Romano has dreams of adventure. She meets the antiquarian Pyrrho Ligorio (based on the real Ligorio), and they become instant friends. He travels to the Duke Vicino Orsini’s palazzo to work on his garden of grotesques and stone monsters and invites Lucrezia and her parents along. Lucrezia will be Ligorio’s model for a statue of Ceres.

Meanwhile, in current-day Italy, Frank visits the Garden of Monsters (the Duke’s garden from the 16th century and a real place). He has the copy of Dante with him as he tours the garden alone and it grows dark. A thunderstorm ensues, and he takes cover in one of the sculptures, the Mouth of Hell, but not before seeing the statue of Ceres. He is drawn to the statue’s face in particular.

In the 16th century, the Duke has a ball. The party guests are in costume and are mingling in the gardens. Lucrezia is among them. A thunderstorm breaks out.

After the storm ends, Frank emerges from the Mouth of Hell, only to find himself surrounded by what he thinks are reenactors. He is imprisoned by the Duke for questioning, as it’s strange that a man just seemed to appear out of nowhere during the storm, while all the guests were taking cover.

Frank is confused and grows angry, as he thinks these reenactors are having him on. In time, however, he understands that he has traveled through time. Vicino, Ligorio, and Lucrezia are among the small group who believe that Frank (Francesco as they call him) is from the future.

Besides Frank’s sudden appearance, other strange things start happening in the garden. Statues seem to be moving. Glowing letters appear at the entrance of the Mouth of Hell at night, saying, “Abandon all thought, you who enter here,” echoing the warning in Dante’s writing.

A story of adventure and love ensues as Lucrezia, Frank, Ligorio, and Lucrezia’s father travel to Venice to visit the Aldine Press to procure another copy of the Dante, which they think is Frank’s ticket back to the future. There is also real concern that word of what’s going on in the garden will get back to the Church, and Vicino, Frank, and Ligorio will be questioned and possibility burn for it.

The relationship between Frank and Lucrezia develops as they travel together. One of my favorite parts of the story was when they were in Venice and were in love in what many consider is the most beautiful city in the world. There are some lovely descriptions of Venice, which echoes a couple torn by circumstance who is in love and just living in the moment. Having visited Venice, I can attest to the fact that you can’t take a bad picture there. I felt like I was right there with Frank and Lucrezia. While I longed for them to somehow find a way to stay together, the larger problem of the Church and the happenings in the garden tugged at my heart, knowing this would be a heart-wrenching decision.

Back at the palazzo, the Duke makes some startling discoveries about his late wife and blood magic. The Church begins to question him and others, and it’s a race to see how everything will pan out.

The more I read the book, the more the momentum grew. The climax is indeed a strong one. The ending made me cry, brought me right there with Frank and Lucrezia. More than the mystical and magical aspects of this wonderful tale is that it’s a love story at heart, and one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

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